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L’Atalante (1934)

Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) is a beloved classic that shreds light to early marital relationships shown through the lens of poetic realism.  It is the modern-day fairytale of its time, a story of finding love, losing it, and finding it again.

The film shows various scenes in the everyday life of its working class heroes. The film begins by introducing us to main characters:  Juliette – the lovely lady who has always been different with dreams bigger than the small town she has never left, and Jean-the playful river barge captain whose passion dictates the way he goes about his life. The grumpy old co-captain of the barge is Pere Jules; a creepy, rude, eccentric, and lovable ogre godmother-like character who is the voice of reason and a father figure to the young couple. In the background are cats scattered around the boat adored by their owner, Le Pere Jules. There is also an unnamed cabin boy who does odd jobs and functions as a conversational tool to Pere Jule’s many monologues and a sidekick to his plans.

It begins in a journey, the bridal walk to the groom that seems more like a funeral march than a celebration.  We see a young couple who just got married and about to start their life together in a river barge set to travel the canals of France.  Stages of their whirlwind relationship unfold and starts by highlighting the characters’ uncertainty with one another.  Juliette initially resists Jean’s sexual advances highlighted in a scene where she stands by the end of the barge, looking back at the town she is leaving behind as the sun sets to another day. A mishap caused by one of the many cats brings the young couple together on their first night.

True to the realism of the movie, we see the couple going through the motions of everyday life in the barge. They soon discover their many differences, eccentricities, and endearing traits.  Jean uses his authority as the captain to make Juliette happy such as letting her wash dirty clothes and linens on their honeymoon, including Le Pere Jule’s, despite his strong disagreement against it. The innocent Juliette believes that Jean is her true love because she has seen the young man’s face underwater as a child. Juliette’s desire to experience new and different things is captured through her longing to see Paris and the boredom from the life in the barge that she struggles with every night.  Jean worries about Juliette leaving her in the middle of the night, yet he constantly leaves her to man the barge at night. Their immature relationship was best captured by Le Pere Jule’s description of it, which was “either smoochin’ or squabbling”.

The ups and downs of their relationship are also exemplified through the different moods and tones throughout the film.  A warm sunrise welcomes their first day as a married couple. Bright daylight scenes are evident when we see them being playful with each other.  Their fears are visually highlighted in various ways such as a dark and foggy night when Jean thought his wife fell of the boat or their cold or through the empty bed that emphasizes Juliette’s boredom and isolation.  The differences on how the main characters perceive new and modern ideas are a constant source of conflict between them. The adventurous lifestyle appeals to Juliette yet Jean tries to protect her from it in several scenes.  He destroyed mementos from Le Pere Jule’s past during a jealous rampage after seeing Juliette enjoying herself in his co-captain’s cabin; he guarded her against the peddler’s advances in the dance floor, and limited her chance to acquire new things from the over-sized suitcase with “fancy stuff within”.  Scenes from Juliette’s night alone in the urban dwelling show her longing over the impressive items behind brightly lit shop windows yet a significant change in the mood is seen when she was roaming the same streets after being left behind by Jean’s boat. We see Juliette battling menacing men from dark streets and an industrial city with people lining up for jobs that are not available as she longs to come back to the protective capsule of L’Atalante. Jean struggles with the separation as well. His character acts in a stupor-like trance oblivious to everything from his role as a captain to the cheating in a rigged game of checkers.

In the end the couple finds their way back to each other’s arm, thanks to the perceptiveness and fortitude of Le Pere Jule. Without questions and with so much pent-up desires, the film ends with their loving and sensual embrace unmindful of everything else that has happened in between.  Despite being a love story, the film focused on the couple’s physical desire and not on their romantic relationship. Juliette’s fantasy is ridiculed by the misfortunes she faced when she gave in to her naivety of the urban life and we see her coming back to the dull life she tried to run away from. Experience and wisdom is not from a gentlemanly aristocrat elder but from a shabby-looking character with questionable hygiene, uncanny humor, and a cat-loving soul. The passionate relationships between the different characters were mostly embodied through the dialogue between them that stays away from theatrics making everything real and relatable for the present-day audience.

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